Reopening the Ontario economy requires a collective effort

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Photo credit: Pexels/Diva Plavalaguna

As we think back to the last 15 months of the COVID-19 pandemic we will remember the three lockdowns of the provincial economy in Ontario.

The first COVID-19 lockdown happened in March of 2020. A staged geographic reopening commenced two months later with hardware stores, garden centres and other outdoor facilities among the early openings.

After a turbulent fall season of different rules across Ontario and rising case counts, a second province-wide business shutdown took effect for December 26. The long, dark winter lockdown started to fade ever so briefly in March, only to give way to a vicious third wave of COVID-19. Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders restarted shortly thereafter. This latest lockdown is finally coming to an end as part of the provincial reopening framework that relies on mass vaccination rates among Ontarians.

Ontario has started this third reopening with patio dining, restricted retail, and other outdoor activities as part of Step 1. Businesses and customers are excited and optimistic with the opportunity to open again after these extended and devastating closures.

Ontario will officially enter Step 2 on June 30, a few days ahead of schedule. The good news comes after weeks of dropping case numbers and continuously high vaccination rates across the province.

The federal government also has a heavy responsibility along with Queen’s Park in safely reopening the Canadian economy. On June 14, a group of national business leaders called on Prime Minister Trudeau to develop and release a comprehensive strategy to reopen the economy, particularly as it relates to the Canada-U.S. border as well as international borders. In addition, a clear vaccination certification process is needed as businesses prepare for a highly uncertain summer across Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau indicated he has spoken with President Biden about easing border restrictions but provided no hints that a timeline or other relevant details have been finalized.

Despite the optimism around current and anticipated openings, there is heavy pressure on the federal and Ontario governments to continue with their financial support of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) because the reopening will be slow and uneven. The Ontario Small Business Support Grant, which was received positively when announced last January, has not been adequate to address the financial challenges of a sufficient number of small businesses for several reasons. Too many applicants have been denied or had assistance delayed. And the four-to-six-month economic lockdowns have been far longer than anyone anticipated. For many businesses across the province this long lockdown demands a third round of funding support for hurting SMEs so they can make it through the COVID finish line during the long re-opening framework time.

The federal government wage and rent subsidy programs have also been effective programs but they too need to be extended beyond the current termination date in September so they can continue to meet the financial needs of so many small businesses across Canada. The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CRES) are both scheduled to end in September and business organizations, like chambers of commerce, have been vocally and consistently calling for an extension to these lifeline programs.

In addition, businesses which have started up in the last two years should have the same access to all federal support programs as promised by the prime minister over a year ago with programs like the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) being improved to allow up to $80,000 with a 50 per cent forgivable portion and a repayment deadline beyond the end of 2022. This will make it much more likely that SMEs will make it to the finish line of COVID and be ready to spur the economic recovery that the country needs.

On average, small businesses have taken on $163,000 in COVID-19 related debt, and many may not have a clear path to repaying it. So, this will be a huge post-COVID issue that small businesses and governments at all levels will have to face together.

As we emerge from the pandemic we must do so on as strong a footing as possible. All levels of government must cooperate to ensure businesses can successfully open their doors. Because a fourth wave and fourth lockdown cannot be an option.

Let’s keep work together – for our communities, our neighbours, and our businesses.

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